Coronavirus opens education’s digital divide, as COVID-19 forces schools into online learning
David Robinson’s 12 and 8-year-old daughters are his pride and joy — and he’s worried about how he’s going to homeschool them.
At his home in Melbourne’s north-east, David has one mobile phone and one laptop, but no internet connection. And like many other parents across the country, he has real concerns about the forced move into online learning as most schools look to close from the coronavirus threat.
“I don’t have internet at home, I’ve never been able to afford it,” Mr Robinson said.
“I [used] the local libraries rather than spend money that I can’t afford having internet here.”
Libraries though, like many community facilities, are now closed.
Both his daughters are in the public system and his options for continuing their learning are limited.
David’s experience also exposes a massive digital divide between wealthier Australians and those less fortunate.
“My daughter can connect to my data on my phone and download that way, but if they’re talking about video learning with teachers and having to spend hours talking to teachers over the internet then there’s no way that she’s going to be able to do that,” he said.
State education departments are working around the clock to come up with solutions — there’s talk of some resources being mailed — but it won’t level the playing field.
NSW Public Education Foundation executive director David Hetherington said there were hundreds of parents in David’s position.
He described Australia’s digital divide as “a chasm”.
“It’s bigger than most people think,” he said.
“There are some statistics out there that suggest one in six children live in households below the poverty line.
“In many cases, these children don’t have access to a device or the connectivity that makes interaction with schools and the education system possible.
“So we’re really concerned that as the coronavirus epidemic unfolds and we move to a remote learning model, there may be some kids who are left behind in terms of digital learning.”
The foundation is this year supplying grants of between $1,500 and $2,000 to 417 students.
Up to 1,200 students are expected to apply, with the biggest need being digital tools for secondary students.
The ABC has seen a number of successful applications, with their names altered.
This one from a great-grandmother whose family has generations of unemployment and struggles to pay for uniforms read:
“Robin is 6 years old. Most 6-year-olds can count to 100, but Robin is well below that level, only able to count to 38.
“There is no computer or internet connection at home and this scholarship would allow Robin to complete school more easily.
“She is a real character and I want her to get the best out of her school years. I want more for Robin than I had.”
Another was from the mother of an Aboriginal boy. They live 75 kilometres from the nearest supermarket and his father lost his job due to the drought.
“We want the best for our boy, but there is not much out here.
“We would be appreciative of support so that we can have internet and give our boy a computer so that he could learn when he is at home
Aside from the devices of the future, the tools of the past like a desk, a chair and a quiet space can also be tough for some families to come by.
David Spriggs is the chief executive of Infoxchange, a not-for-profit social enterprise working for the past 30 years to bridge this gap in Australia and New Zealand.
“There’s still more than 2.5 million Australians who aren’t online,” Mr Spriggs said. “And beyond that a much bigger group who don’t have the digital skills to interact effectively online.”
Other technology designed by Infoxchange, which helps connect the needy with services, has seen a 117 per cent surge in the number of people looking for food since the coronavirus threat began — some of whom have never had to seek help before.
“I think there’s a huge risk that families, children in particular, could be missing out in moving to that online learning environment,” Mr Spriggs said.
“But I think it’s broader than just children and schools, it’s the entire population, in terms of accessing to up to date government information and accessing government services.”
Mr Robinson has been trying to get off welfare for the past few years.
But with the job market contracting even further, it will be no easy feat for the 49-year-old.
But, he said, every child’s education should be important “as every other’s” and he wants to give every possible opportunity to his two daughters.
“Private schools are closing, but those parents can probably afford to stay home and afford to have the internet and afford to do all those things,” he said.
“It has to be across the board.”